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My first bully was Michael Dickerson. Standing in line after recess, on the playground of Rolling Valley Elementary School in Springfield, he came out of nowhere and tackled me. It was really just two 5-year-olds rolling around in their over-puffy winter jackets for about two seconds, before one of the nearby teachers broke it up. I wasn’t left bruised, just confused. These 36 years later, I still have no idea what was up his ass.
Around the same time, my father was back from Vietnam. In those days, mental-health services were not atop the priority pile. Certainly, it was not encouraged. So I can’t fault him entirely for screaming at me to the point of causing enough fear to make me wet myself – a fact he had to point out to me, as I was so terrified that I was oblivious to my soggy briefs.
A few years later, I met Jason Figley. I was just back from a half year of schooling in Tunisia, where my father had been posted. Apparently, the American Cooperative School of Tunis’s seventh grade math program was not up to Washington Irving Junior High standards, and I had to spend a quarter catching up in the remedial class. Jason was already king of that small world. I recall his gracious introduction, though I may be paraphrasing: ”I’m gonna kick your ass after school.” What the hell?
Jason didn’t keep that date, but he was awful just the same. I ended up having him in a gym class, too. It was there that he enjoyed punching my arm. This was some sort of test of machismo, I think. It may have even had a name along the lines of ”Indian burn” or ”Dutch rub.” I wasn’t laughing at the bruises, though. Nor was the family doctor, whose line of questioning obviously showed some suspicion of my home life. Once I convinced him, however, that this was a case of boys being boys, his alarm abated. Beatings by your parents are one horrific thing; finding your social footing among the savagery of junior high is an acceptable other.
To complain would be, in a word, ”gay.” It would mean surrendering to that suspicion, confessing to the weakness of which you are suspect. At least, that’s what all the social clues told me.
School officials would, on occasion, have to involve themselves. I remember it happening once at Washington Irving, when the bad girl, Dede Ramsey, assaulted a newly arrived South Asian immigrant – obviously for no other reason than being the newly arrived South Asian immigrant – fracturing her arm on the blacktop basketball court.
It all comes around, however. Pleasantly, the years worked to mellow my father, and I was able to slowly forgive his postwar parenting. But as I forgave, he did not forget. He was on his deathbed about 20 years after that bad behavior, wanting my forgiveness.
And returning to Springfield from Florida, where my family had moved following junior high, I was happy to pull into a neighborhood gas station and have another junior high jerk pump my gas. He was not Jason, and he did not recognize me, but I’m fairly confident that while he may not have bullied me personally, he bullied some peer of mine. I savored this small service-sector submission.
There are nobler ways to address bullying. As Dan Savage promises, it gets better. But to both the young bullied gay kid – or South Asian girl, or whomever has found himself or herself in the sights of an some unstable person needing to overpower you – and to the bully, be advised that paths often cross more than once. And the bullied, who may one day be charged with examining a former tyrant’s loan request, assessing his property values, handling her spouse’s divorce filing, etc., aren’t likely to forget. I know I’m not.